The Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM is a kit lens upgrade. A slightly faster lens with more range and better image quality. As part of the “Contemporary” line, it’s one of the ‘new-look’ Sigma lenses, and its overall and build quality support this designation. As far as these new lines go, it’s another hit for Sigma, as it offers a solid upgrade over a kit lens in just about every regard in a small package and at a fairly reasonable price considering all it does.
The biggest strength about the Sigma 17-70mm, I think, is its overall utility. It covers a greater zoom range than the standard kit lens and even the standard ‘upgraded’ walk-around lenses, making it more versatile in that regard. Thanks to its reach (plus a bit of cropping), the shot below was possible, and it wouldn’t have been with a standard kit lens. (The resulting image would’ve been too soft after cropping.) It also can be faster with an f/2.8 aperture at its wider end. That quickly jumps into f/3 territory once you zoom a bit, and hits f/4 at its longest end. The Sigma 17-70mm also offers an excellent optical stabilization system, and quick and accurate autofocus (much like the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4, it seems there aren’t the prevalent ‘bad copies’ of this lens that used to haunt even the best Sigma releases).
The sharpness the Sigma 17-70mm offers is also a nice upgrade over a standard kit lens. Wide open it’s sharp, but once stopped down just a bit, it becomes tack sharp and delivers exceptional results. This was really a noticeable advantage over the kit lens when paired with our 24 MP Nikon D3200, as images were sharp even at 100%.
While the extra range (a little wider and more reach) and added sharpness over the kit lens are nice, I think it’s the aperture and sharpness that really give the Sigma 17-70mm great advantage. As mentioned, you do quickly lose that f/2.8 once you start zooming, but for my style, it was useful. I think anyone who shoots wide indoors will find this true, as the combination of the stabilization and the f/2.8 aperture is a pretty great thing.
In terms of Disney photography, the wide angle and f/2.8 plus fast autofocus makes this a viable lens for photographing dark rides. I normally would stick to an f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens for dark rides (even with my D600, which has great high ISO performance), but just for fun, I decided to put this lens to test in Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure. Those who have been on this attraction know that the scenes are dimly lit, and the ride vehicle moves pretty quickly through them (in terms of difficulty, it’s less difficult than Peter Pan’s Flight but more difficult than Pirates of the Caribbean, I’d say). I was a bit shocked to nail a few different scenes in one pass through the ride with this lens and the Nikon D3200, including the one above and below this paragraph. Not bad for a zoom lens and an entry level camera, right?!
As far as bokeh and separation goes, the Sigma 17-70mm is an improvement in both regards over the kit lens, and can offer nice separation and bokeh, but it’s not going to deliver the same results as a prime lens or even an f/2.8 zoom. This is to be expected, as the Sigma 17-70mm is f/4 at its long end, but it’s worth noting in case bokeh is your main priority. Still, this lens can deliver solid results in this department, it’s just not as easy to achieve separation here as it is with a prime lens.
No lens is perfect, and the Sigma 17-70mm is no exception. There is some noticeable chromatic aberration when you’re wider than about 25mm. Personally, I think chromatic aberration is one of those “who cares” things. The ‘remove chromatic aberration’ box is checked in all of my Adobe Camera Raw presets, and I would hope that anyone using a nicer lens is editing their photos with a program that similarly allows for a 1-second checkbox ‘fix’ of this problem. I honestly don’t know why it’s still even discussed since modern photo editing programs basically negate the problem. But…if you care, there is some present at wide focal lengths.
At the widest focal lengths (~17-19mm), there’s also some corner softness. Nothing blatant or that gave me any pause, but at 17mm, if you have edge to edge detail, you will probably notice this.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call macro a weakness, but it shouldn’t really be considered a selling point. Sure, the minimum focusing distance is great, but in my attempts at macro, I was always found the camera casting shadows on what I was trying to photograph, and I didn’t end up with anything useful. Given the aperture/focal length combinations, I think it’s safe to say that my experience here is going to be the norm. Still, the minimum focusing distance will be nice if you need it.
While there are no real competitors to the Sigma 17-70mm, I think those looking for an upgraded kit lens are going to be confronted with a choice between the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 or the Sigma 17-70mm. Both lenses are excellent choices that I highly recommend as upgrades. It’s really difficult to give a clear edge to one or the other, since both will appeal to different types of photographers. With a constant f/2.8 aperture, the Tamron is faster and offers better ability to isolate a subject with shallow depth of field. With f/2.8 only at its widest focal lengths, the speed of the Sigma isn’t as good, but it makes up for this with optical stabilization (remember, the Tamron we recommend is the sharper, cheaper version without stabilization). Of course, stabilization doesn’t affect depth of field, and while the Tamron can achieve shallow depth of field in some situations, it’s more difficult. In terms of the Sigma’s advantages, it offers an extra 20mm of reach, covering the 50-70mm range, too. In reviewing my EXIF data of sample shots I took, this extra reach was definitely nice, as over 35% of my photos with it were taken above 50mm. In terms of sharpness, I’d say it’s about a draw, with each lens being quite sharp. With both lenses being pretty great, it thus comes down to whether you want a constant f/2.8 lens, or a lens with stabilization and extra zoom.
Overall, the Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM is a very solid upgrade over the standard kit lens for any photographer wanting something more for their walk-around lens. It’s an improvement in every category that matters. Plus, it’s a small lens in a really well built package. Although it doesn’t deliver a constant f/2.8 aperture, it does have its own (possibly more-important-to-you) advantages that make it a lens that we highly recommend. That we place it in the same esteem as the highly regarded Tamron 17-50mm should speak volumes about this lens. If you are currently using a kit lens, consider either this lens or that Tamron (depending upon your shooting style) as one of the first upgrades you make to your camera bag.
October 2013 UPDATE: This lens is no longer our recommendation for a kit lens upgrade. Read our Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Lens Review to learn why.
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If you’re looking for other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
Do you own the Sigma 17-70mm? Interested in it, or do you think the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 would better suit your style? Share your thoughts about this camera in the comments!